Making the most of Performance Improvement Plans

PIPRita Perea is president and CEO of Rita Perea Leadership Coaching and Consulting, specializing in working with senior leaders to successfully engage employees, lead teams, manage change and balance work and life.

Do you remember playing the“Chutes and Ladders” board game as a child? Squeals of delight ensued as we moved our pawns ahead the number of squares indicated by the spinner. Bad luck if your game piece landed on a chute; you had to move backward on the game board and lose precious momentum in getting ahead. Good luck was landing on the first step of a ladder. Your game piece was rewarded by automatically advancing to the top of the ladder and getting ahead on the game board. Landing on a ladder meant that you had a good shot at winning. Everyone wanted to land on a ladder. But landing on a chute meant that you most likely would lose the game and walk away from your friends in disgrace. It was a tough and powerful life lesson. And not one that you wanted to repeat.

Sometimes it can feel as if our careers are one big game of chutes and ladders. Except that life is not a game, and being blindsided and sent backward in our careers can have serious economic and social consequences for us.

Moving up the career ladder in a sequential fashion is the stuff that corporate dreams are made of. Career advancement is what every American is taught to strive for. And some even feel entitled to it. Move forward. Get ahead. Be a success and a winner.

What happens if an employee or supervisor is not making the progress, meeting their goals or performing as expected? Enter the PIP. This is not the Gladys Knight kind of crooning PIP. This PIP is a Performance Improvement Plan. These plans are known by several different names: Plan of Assistance, Employee in Need of Improvement Plan, Needs Improvement Plan, etc. This is a serious chute that can derail a career. Recently I have seen an increase in the number of individuals who have been involuntarily placed on a PIP. The message the plans are designed to send to an employee is clear: Improve your performance, or we will sever our relationship with you. Shape up or ship out!

Usually an employee who receives an improvement plan has had a performance review that has been less than stellar. The review would indicate which areas of performance do not meet expectations and need improvement. For an employer, an improvement plan is the natural next step in the “shape up or ship out” program.

Sometimes an employee is caught off guard, blindsided that they are not meeting expectations until the moment the PIP is presented. This employee would naturally feel a flood of emotions: shock, confusion, disbelief, anger, frustration, shame, embarrassment. An important note here from good personnel law is that an employee should never be caught off guard with an improvement plan. A performance review noting deficiencies should have been completed and presented to the employee prior to the design and presentation of an improvement plan. Unfortunately, however, it is not a perfect world.

So, what do you do if you receive a PIP?

  1. Do not share on Facebook or any other form of social media. PIPs are confidential human resource tools that will be placed in your permanent personnel file. Only discuss your PIP with your supervisor and your human resources manager. Keep it confidential.
  2. Clarify if this is the first step of progressive dismissal. You have to know how serious this is and if you are in danger of being fired from your job.
  3. Clarify the PIP goals and how the success of reaching those goals will be measured. What are the specifics of the goals that you are being asked to improve? Will you be required to discuss and provide documentation of your progress toward your PIP goals with your supervisor? How often, and what sort of data does that person want to see? What needs to happen, and what to they need to see to release you from the PIP? These are vital questions. It is hard to make a bulls-eye if your don’t know where the target is.
  4. Clarify the timeline for improvement. Most PIPs are 30, 60 or 90 days in duration. Some may be longer depending upon the complexities of the goals and the number of people or projects you manage. Clarify the frequency of meetings that your supervisor would like you to have with him/her to discuss your PIP progress. Weekly progress meetings are very common.
  5. Is the organization providing you with resources to help you meet your PIP goals? Do you get to attend a seminar or hire a professional coach (like me!) to help you focus and exceed your improvement goals?
  6. Do some soul-searching. This is a golden opportunity to take stock and decide if you and the organization are really a good match. Do you want to continue to work for this organization? Can you honestly do the job you are being expected to do? Do you have the skills needed to do the job? Is it time to polish up your resume and begin a job search? Is it time to resign? Or is it time to put on your winning attitude and make a commitment to not only meet, but to exceed, the improvement goals you have been given? If you are going to “go for it,” then you need to be focused and all in.
  7. It helps to talk about your emotions in a safe and confidential place. If your emotional reactions to being placed on a PIP are severe, such as you are crying all the time or angry at everyone, ask your HR manager for the phone number to see an EAP, or Employee Assistance Program, counselor. This is a benefit offered by most employers for all employees who find themselves facing emotionally difficult situations in both their work and personal lives.

Life lessons and career setbacks are complicated and not easy to navigate when you feel alone. It is important to give a plan to improve your work performance very serious consideration and to take diligent action steps so both you and your company will emerge as winners in the end.

© Rita Perea, 2016

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